Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Universal Benefits of the Great Books

Peter Watson divided his book, The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century (2001), into four parts. In the last, concerning our post-modern times, he included a chapter entitled “Culture Wars.” There he discusses various views of the Great Books of the Western World.

Among these he included views expressed by David Denby. Denby graduated from Columbia University in 1961 before becoming an editor with the New Yorker and a professional film critic. In 1991, he decided to return to Columbia and retake two classes that emphasized Western classics. Denby reflected on his experience in Great Books (1996).

In his book, Denby noted ways today’s media compromise our ability to benefit from the Great Books. He found himself, like the rest of us, “‘cast into the modern state of living-in-the-media, a state of excitement needled with disgust’” (733). He realized that immersing ourselves in this constant state of excitement, unnatural in its intensity and duration, “makes every moment but the present seem quaint, bloodless, or dead’” (734). Yet this excitement, based on a torrent of meaningless sounds and images, harms our ability to understand, read, or even bother with the Great Books.

Because they have been immersed in this intense, exciting, yet trivial media, young adults “whether white, black, Latino, or Asian, ‘rarely arrive at college as habitual readers’” (734). The Great Books compel us to develop the ability to read, think, understand, and imagine.

Two, “‘The vast majority of white students do not know the intellectual tradition that is allegedly theirs any better than black or brown ones do’” (734). The Great Books tell us who we are, where we have been, how we got to where we are today, and helpful ways of moving forward.

Three, the Great Books “‘jar so many student habits, violate so many contemporary pieties, and challenge so many forms of laziness that…they are actually the most radical courses in the undergraduate curriculum’” (734). Reading them builds character.

Finally, “the students grasped that these authors ‘dramatize the utmost any of us is capable of in love, suffering and knowledge’” (734). While popular global culture leaves us intensely trivial, the Great Books allow us to discover previously unimaginable depths of meaning.

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